The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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Church of the Holy Trinity v U.S

Church of the Holy Trinity v U.S., 143 U.S. 266 (1892) Barton cites this case 20 times in The Myth of Separation (Immigration case)

Legal research, analysis and writing by Susan Batte, Esq.

Major claims by Barton in his publications:

In The Myth of Separation, page 47-51, Barton writes:

This case provides a good starting point [he lists this case first in his chapter on earlier court cases], for it cites several of the earlier cases. This case centered on an 1885 federal law concerning immigration which declared:

It shall be unlawful for any person, company, partnership, or corporation, in any manner whatsoever ... to in any way assist or encourage the importation .. . of any alien or . ..foreigners, into the United States . . . under contract or agreement . . . to perform labor or service of any kind. '

Two years later, in 1887, the Church of the Holy Trinity in New York employed a clergyman from England as its pastor. That employment was challenged by the United States Attorney General's office as a violation of the law. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court.

The first half of the Court's decision dealt with what it termed "absurd" application of laws. The Court was not saying that the legislation was absurd, for in the early years the Court rarely criticized the legislature since it was the voice of the people. "Absurd" referred to cases where an interpretation by the letter of the law and not by the spirit or intent of its framers would lead to absurd results.

The Court examined the Congressional records of the hearings surrounding this legislation and established, from the legislators' own testimony, that the law was enacted solely to preclude an influx of cheap and unskilled labor for work on the railroads. Although the church's alleged violation was certainly within the letter of the law, it was not within its spirit. The Court concluded that only an "absurd" application of the Constitution would allow a restriction on Christianity:

No purpose of action against religion can be imputed to any legislation, state or national, because this is a religious people. . . . This is a Christian nation.

The Court resolved the legal question within the first half of its written ruling and devoted the remainder to establishing that this nation is indeed Christian and why it would be constitutionally "absurd" and legally impossible to legislate any restrictions on Christianity. Despite the Court's use of only brief historical quotations, its references comprised eight of the sixteen pages in the decision. Justice Brewer, who delivered the opinion of the Court, gave the basis for the Court's conclusion:

This is a religious people. This is historically true. From the discovery of this continent to the present hour, there is a single voice making this affirmation. The commission to Christopher Columbus ... [recited] that "it is hoped that by God's assistance some of the continents and islands in the ocean will be discovered . . . ." The first colonial grant made to Sir Waiter Raleigh in 1584... and the grant authorizing him to enact statutes for the government of the proposed colony provided that "they be not against the true Christian faith . . . ." The first charter of Virginia, granted by King James I in 1606 . . . commenced the grant in these words: " . . . in propagating of Christian Religion to such People as yet live in Darkness . . . . Language of similar import may be found in the subsequent charters of that colony . . . in 1609 and 1611; and the same is true of the various charters granted to the other colonies. In language more or less emphatic is the establishment of the Christian religion declared to be one of the purposes of the grant. The celebrated compact made by the Pilgrims in the Mayflower, 1620, recites: "Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith . . . a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia . . . . The fundamental orders of Connecticut, under which a provisional government was instituted in 1638-1639, commence with this declaration: " ... And well knowing where a people are gathered together the word of God requires that to maintain the peace and union . . . there should be an orderly and decent government established according to God . . . to maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the gospel of our Lord Jesus which we now profess . . . of the said gospel [which] is now practiced amongst us." In the charter of privileges granted by William Penn to the province of Pennsylvania, in 1701, it is recited: " ... no people can be truly happy, though under the greatest enjoyment of civil liberties, if abridged of. . . their religious profession and worship . . . . Coming nearer to the present time, the Declaration of Independence recognizes the presence of the Divine in human affairs in these words: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . . . appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions . . . "; "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."

The Court continued with example after example, citing portions from the forty-four state constitutions (the number of states in 1892), using many of the same excerpts given in this book in earlier chapters. The Court's historical discourse continued for several pages until finally summarizing its findings:

There is no dissonance in these declarations. There is a universal language pervading them all, having one meaning; they affirm and reaffirm that this is a religious nation. These are not individual sayings, declarations of private persons: they are organic utterances; they speak the voice of the entire people. While because of a general recognition of this truth the question has seldom been presented to the courts, yet we find that in Updegraph v. The Commonwealth, it was decided that, "Christianity, general Christianity, is, and always has been, a part of the common law . . . not Christianity with an established church . . . but Christianity with liberty of conscience to all men." And in The People v. Ruggles, Chancellor Kent, the great commentator on American law, speaking as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New York, said: "The people of this State, in common with the people of this country, profess the general doctrines of Christianity, as the rule of their faith and practice. . . . We are a Christian people, and the morality of the country is deeply engrafted upon Christianity, and not upon the doctrines or worship of those impostors [other religions]. "And in the famous case of Vidal v. Girard's Executors, this Court . . . observed: "It is also said, and truly, that the Christian religion is a part of the common law ...." These, and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation.

This stands as quite a convincing and broad-based argument! The Court quoted directly from eighteen sources, alluded to over forty others, and acknowledged "many other" and "a volume" more from which selections could have been made.

The Court cited People v. Ruggles, Updegraph v. Commonwealth, and Vidal v. Girard's Executors in establishing its conclusion. The Ruggles case was decided by the Supreme Court of New York in 1811, Updegraph by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in 1826, and Vidal by the United States Supreme Court in 1844. Before reviewing these three cases, an observation needs to be made about cases stemming from state supreme courts.

Currently, the federal Supreme Court is very high profile and affects national and private life through its far-reaching decisions. Consequently, a state's supreme court is now perceived as a less credible source than the federal Supreme Court. However, this was not the attitude of earlier years. For 150 years after the ratification of the Constitution, the states were considered the highest source of authority. Most disputes went no higher than state courts, and only unusual circumstances would cause a case to go to the federal Supreme Court (i.e., disputes between states, cases involving federal territories not yet states, cases not involving a jury decision, etc.).

Therefore, on items concerning religion and Christianity, the federal courts were considered less of an authority than the state courts. As the Court itself had noted in the Holy Trinity case, it had few occasions in which to decide on issues affecting Christianity: While because of a general recognition of this truth [that we are a Christian nation], the question has seldom been presented to the courts.

When the federal Court did render a decision touching Christianity, it frequently cited the decisions of the state supreme courts, as it did in Holy Trinity. It is helpful to keep this background information in mind when examining the following cases. [ Updegraph, Ruggles, Kneeland, Vidal, M'Creery, Runkel, Sharpless]

Is the United States a Christian Nation? By Susan Batte, Esq.

Getting to Know Supreme Court Justice David J. Brewer: Author of the Holy Trinity (Christian Nation) Opinion. Researched by Susan Batte and James Allison. Written by James Allison

Robert Boston in his book, Why the Religious Right is Wrong About Separation of Church & State, Prometheus Books, Buffalo N.Y., (1993) p 84, says

The U.S. Supreme Court even fell victim to the "Christian nation" mentality from time to time. Religious Right activists frequently cite 1892's Holy Trinity Church v. United Slates decision as proof that the high court considered the United States a "Christian nation." But as usual, they don't tell the whole story.

In the ruling, Justice David Brewer flatly declared, "This is a Christian nation." To this day, historians debate what Brewer meant by the term. It is unclear whether he meant to say the country's laws should reflect Christianity or was simply acknowledging the fact that most Americans are Christians.

A strong case can be made for the latter proposition by examining a case that came along five years after the Holy Trinity ruling. The dispute centered on legalized prostitution in New Orleans. A Methodist church challenged a city ordinance allowing prostitution in one area of the city. The church argued that prostitution should be illegal everywhere in New Orleans, and said the activity was inconsistent with Christianity which the Supreme Court of the United States says is the foundation of our government.

Writing for a unanimous court, Brewer completely ignored the church's argument and upheld the New Orleans policy. Brewer's bypass in this case suggests that he did not mean to imply in Holy Trinity that the United States should enforce the dictates of Christianity by law. Had that been Brewer's intention, he surely would have upheld the Methodists' claim.

Below is the case referred to by Rob Boston

Legal research, analysis and writing by Susan Batte, Esq.

L'Hote and the Methodist Episcopal Church v. City of New Orleans

Facts: The City of New Orleans decided to establish by ordinance the places in its fair city where prostitutes could not live, inhabit, own houses, be lewd, etc. Plaintiff George L'Hote was a property owner in an area of the City of New Orleans that had fallen in an area protected by the ordinance, but when the City Council decided to amend its ordinance, Mr. L'Hote's property fell outside that protected area. He filed suit arguing, among other things, that the City of New Orleans through its amended ordinance had deprived him of the equal protection of the law, and that the City had no power to enact such an ordinance.

The Methodist Episcopal Church joined in the suit alleging that the ordinance had caused a number of their congregation to quit the church.

The plaintiffs' counsel argued that the plaintiffs were deprived of their property or the use of it without due process, that enacting an ordinance concerning prostitution was beyond the scope of the City Council's power, that the City Council's ordinance denied the plaintiff the equal protection of the law, and lastly, that the ordinance created an "asylum for abandoned women" in violation of the principles of the Christian religion, which the Supreme Court of the U.S. says is the foundation of our government."

The Defendant's counsel simply argued that the police power is reserved to the states, that the ordinance was the result of the City Council's exercise of its police power, and that any owner of property so injured by the ordinance was deemed to be compensated by the overall public benefit "the regulation is designed to subserve."

Issue: Does the City of New Orleans violate the U. S. Constitution when it enacts an ordinance prescribing limits where prostitutes may not dwell or carry on in a lewd manner violates the Constitution of the United States.

Holding: No.

Reason: Police power is beyond the reach of the judiciary. If the City can establish that its regulation is designed to protect the health, safety and morals of its citizenry, then such regulation will be constitutionally valid. Any injury on the part of one of its citizens is compensated by the overall public benefit. Brewer does not even address the Christian Nation argument of the plaintiffs.

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